THE fight over forests in the Pacific Northwest seems as long-lived as an old fir tree. Battles in the United States Congress and the federal courts have been going on for years, and no near-term conclusion is evident. If anything, solid solutions appear more distant now that salmon have joined the northern spotted owl as endangered species threatened by logging.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, usually a positive thinker, calls the situation a political ``train wreck.'' And the Clinton administration, wading through more than 100,000 critical comments on its draft forest plan for the region, recently had to ask US District Judge William Dwyer in Seattle for a 90-day extension of the deadline to issue its final plan.
Yet for all the struggle over balancing environmental protection and economic well-being here, there are a number of good-news stories as well.
Some forests are being managed sustainably, which means they are economically productive while maintaining their natural biological diversity - true forests instead of tree plantations. Systems are being developed to independently certify that lumber produced from such forests is ``green'' in more ways than one, and such environmentally friendly products are finding new markets from Home Depot stores to Wal-Mart's new ``Eco-Mart'' store in Kansas.
And perhaps most important, environmentalists, timber-industry representatives, community leaders, and government specialists are quietly gathering here and there to search out solutions that all the shouting has only impeded.
Bill Howe is part of the effort to practice sustainable timbering. He is forest manager for the Collins Pine Company in northeastern California near Mt. Lassen. Tramping through a part of the 92,000 acres he oversees, pointing out the centuries-old trees and wildlife habitat that make this a true forest, he states the Collins philosophy simply: ``Don't buck nature.''
The family-owned company has been here since Truman Collins set up the logging and sawmill operation 50 years ago. Back then, the Collins Almanor Forest contained approximately 1.5 billion board-feet of timber (about enough to build 150,000 homes). Since that time, loggers have dropped and hauled that amount of timber to the mill in Chester, Calif. Yet the same amount stands today.
The key is selective logging - taking only those trees that are diseased or whose growth rate has slowed, while leaving the most vigorous. There are no clear-cuts here, no same-aged rows of trees. The forest floor is ``messy'' with soil-enriching debris. Loggers are careful to leave any trees with bird nests, even those marked for harvest.
``After we get through logging, there's still a forest here,'' Mr. Howe says. That includes the natural ratio of wildlife species. ``If we deviate from that species composition, then we're bucking nature, and we'd better have a pretty good reason for doing it.''
Company officials realize that this is not an entirely natural forest, one which would be swept by fire from time to time. But they work to mimic the effect of fire through the pattern of cutting and the tree species selected for harvest. They also have designated 580 one-acre plots in which every tree is marked, classified, and tracked over decades. Maintaining an ecosystem
``You have to know what the ground is growing to practice sustained forestry,'' Howe says. And yet he's quick to add: ``We're not God by any means. We've made mistakes. We have to test what we do all the time and change if we find that we have to.''
Earlier this year, the Collins Almanor Forest was independently evaluated by Scientific Certification Systems Inc., an Oakland, Calif.-based firm that analyzes product design, management, and production in order to promote environmental sustainability.
An interdisciplinary team, which included a biologist and forest ecologist, graded Collins's forest management in three areas: sustainability of timber resources, maintenance of the forest ecosystem, and socioeconomic benefits to the surrounding community. In these three categories, Collins scored 86, 81, and 89 out of a possible 100 points.
The evaluators pronounced themselves ``impressed [with] Collins' commitment to focusing on the quality of what remains after logging rather than simply the quantity of timber removed.'' The company was praised for its ``consistent appreciation for and cooperation with the natural forest process, an essential component of any long-term sustainable forestry program.''
Also cited was the company's ``notably positive relationship with the local community and its work force.'' For example, Chester High School students who have at least a 3.0 grade-point average are awarded $1,200 annual scholarships for up to 10 years of undergraduate and post-graduate study, as long as they maintain the 3.0 average. Many scholarship recipients are children of the 190 millworkers at Collins Pine. Recreating a natural forest
Several hours' drive north of Chester, near the small southern Oregon town of Selma, Orville Camp oversees another forest that has gained international attention for its biological health as well as economic productivity.
As homesteaders, Mr. Camp's family started logging and milling timber hereabouts in the early part of this century, ``wiping out the forests and moving down the road,'' as he puts it. After completing college and successfully running a couple of audiovideo stores, Camp went into real estate. He acquired 160 acres in 1967, intending to subdivide it.
At the time, the land didn't seem to be worth much else. ``It had been stripped of everything marketable,'' Camp recalls. ``It was basically just brush and fuel and scraggly trees.''
Camp began to restore the land, at first with an eye to increasing its value for development but then to recreate a true forest. He noted a definite improvement within a few years, and 12 years after he bought the land, it was producing logs and nearly 500 cords of firewood a year. In 1978, Camp was named ``Farmer of the Year'' by the local soil and water conservation district; Jackson and Josephine Counties gave him their ``Tree Farmer of the Year'' award the following year.
Today, Camp is quick to point out that he is a ``forest farmer'' and not a tree farmer. The original land purchase (plus two more parcels, bringing the total to about 350 acres) are tended for a wide variety of income-producing crops - from mushrooms, huckleberries, hazelnuts, and florals to hardwoods and softwood conifers.
Walking through the ``Camp Forest Farm,'' a visitor finds it hard to imagine what would have been small residential lots if Camp had gone ahead with the development scheme. The vegetation is thick. The atmosphere is cool and quiet. The roads Camp has put in over the years are more like trails than the logging roads one sees scraped bare across many hillsides in the region.
``It's a management plan for all the amenities, and most of the amenities are more valuable than timber,'' Camp says. This is a radically different idea from those the timber industry and agencies like the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) espouse. And while it's true that this land does not produce the economic bottom line in jobs and income that traditional forest management does, Camp says his approach is necessary if remaining old-growth forests in the United States are to survive. In fact, he asserts, his land will be more productive over the long run than the BLM land that surrounds it.
The basis of Camp's approach is is ``ecocentric'' rather than ``anthropocentric.'' Or as he put it in a paper delivered at a conference in Canada earlier this year, it's ``that nature knows best how to manage and select for removal for sustainability, not people.'' To stay in line with what nature intends as part of a forest's stages of succession, Camp cuts down only the weaker trees. ``The golden rule is: Never take the stronger dominants,'' he says.
In 1984, Camp wrote and published ``The Forest Farmer's Handbook,'' a practical and philosophical guide to ``natural-selection forest management'' that now is in its fourth printing. He has conducted hundreds of workshops and training sessions for forestland owners in the United States and Canada, and has received inquiries from Russia, Slovakia, and Chile. He's also designed contour access-road systems in more than 25 forests.
Camp has little use for the forestry profession as currently practiced by private industry and government agencies, he says, because it focuses on wood products. ``We're converting our forests into tree plantations, and the taxpayers are subsidizing it. And even worse, it's not sustainable. The whole thing is absurd, and there's no logic behind it except to grow a specific crop for a specific industry.''
``The fundamental problem is the old belief that `man should have dominion over every living thing,' '' Camp says on a tour of his land. ``It's a crazy, crazy egotistical approach.''
There are signs that attitudes are changing, however. In several places in the West (and at least one in New England), environmentalists and timber producers - traditional adversaries - have been meeting to break down barriers, build trust, and find practical answers.
Just south of Camp's place, straddling the Oregon-California border, the Applegate River watershed encompasses nearly half a million acres. Over the years, intensive logging, fire suppression, road-building, and (until recently) prolonged drought have had an impact on the forest, two-thirds of which is federally owned.
After years of controversy and occasional confrontation, the Applegate Partnership was formed a year ago to address these problems. Members include small timber-company owners, leaders of the local environmental group Headwaters, and representatives of Forest Service and BLM area offices.
The group was started without fanfare, and there have been long meetings to discuss not only the health of the Applegate watershed ecosystem but also community stability and economic opportunity. As trust has increased, points of agreement have been found and nurtured.
Meanwhile, the Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy (another local group formed about three years ago) has worked up an assessment of job opportunities under ecosystem management of the Applegate, as the area here is called. This study shows the potential for an increase in forest-related jobs compared with the time before enactment of legal injunctions tied to endangered species habitat. These include jobs in reforestation and secondary forest-products manufacturing.
Last spring, just before President Clinton's ``timber summit'' in Portland, Ore., Secretary Babbitt helicoptered in to the Applegate to meet with partnership members. ``There is obviously something of great importance happening here,'' he said. ``I don't think it's about one side or another. It's about looking for a new way of doing things.''
More recently, Tom Tuchman, Babbitt's point man on Northwest forest issues, called such local efforts to bring people together ``the natural resource movement of the 1990s.''
``Environmentalists and loggers don't necessarily have to agree, but there's a sense of respect that's developing,'' Mr. Tuchman said.
Another such effort is the ``Quincy Library Group'' (named for its meeting place), which is focusing on the Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe National Forests in northern California. Group members (one of whom is Collins Pine forest manager Bill Howe) have presented the Forest Service with a ``community stability proposal'' to protect the ecosystem while continuing to provide jobs for the hundreds of local residents dependent on the forests for their livelihood.
Meeting with the group in September, US Senator Barbara Boxer (D) of California called it ``an exciting model.''
There is evidence that the warnings of independent thinkers like Orville Camp, the progressive forest practices of Camp and Collins Pine, the conciliatory efforts of the Applegate and Quincy Library groups, are being heard back in Washington where national policy is made.
The Clinton administration recently replaced Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson, who had been criticized for allowing overcutting and below-cost timber sales on national forests, with wildlife biologist Jack Ward Thomas. Mr. Thomas headed the scientific team that developed a recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. The administration also promises that, by early next year, there will be new national forest regulations based on ecosystem management. New land ethic
At a recent Senate subcommittee hearing, acting Forest Service Chief Dave Unger talked about ``a holistic approach to natural resources ... moving beyond a compartmentalized approach focusing on the individual parts of the forest.''
``It's going to be our new American land ethic,'' BLM director Jim Baca told the Senate agriculture subcommittee on research, conservation, and forestry.
``One thing is clear,'' subcommittee chairman Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota told the administration officials. ``The time has come to take management of the national forests in a different direction.''
Out in spotted-owl country, that's an assertion all sides can agree with.